Last night’s recital in the Faculty Artist Series at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music featured cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau, performing with pianist Jeffrey Sykes as his accompanist. The core of the program consisted of the two sonatas by Johannes Brahms, Opus 38 in E minor, composed between 1862 and 1865, and Opus 99 in F major, composed in 1886. To put these dates in context, Brahms made his first trip to Vienna in 1862; and he was very productive in composing chamber music during the first half of that decade. The results included both of his string sextets (Opus 18 in B-flat major and Opus 36 in G major), the piano quintet (Opus 34 in F minor), and the horn trio (Opus 40 in E-flat major). By 1886 Brahms was at the peak of his career; and that individual year was a prolific one for chamber music, including the Opus 100 violin sonata in A major and the second and third piano trios (Opus 87 in C major and Opus 101 in C minor).
Last night’s recital was particularly distinguished, however, for going beyond the historical context of the music to a historically-informed approach to how that music was performed. Sykes played on an 1856 instrument, made in London by the French piano company Erard, provided for the occasion by the Department of Music at the University of California at Berkeley. Brahms himself was a champion of Bösendorfer pianos, but many of the Bösendorfer instruments were probably inspired by Erard features. What is most important is that the sonorous characteristics of Sykes’ instrument would have been familiar to Brahms. This was particularly the case where different registers were distinguished by sonority, as well as pitch; and Sykes suggested that Brahms composed with those sonorities in mind. For his own part, Fonteneau used gut strings on his instrument to match the dynamic range of his accompanist and, again, to elicit sonorities that Brahms associated with the instrument.
Beyond the distinctiveness of the sonorities of both instruments, and the role of those sonorities in how Brahms composed his sonatas, what made last night’s recital particularly fascinating was how the performers dealt with dynamic range. One of the major contributions of technology to instrument development has been the widening of the range of dynamics that an individual instrument can manage. That range was much narrower in the nineteenth century.
When Brahms is played on modern instruments, performers inevitably allow his dynamic markings to fill the full range that listeners now expect. Nevertheless, the appeal of last night’s performance came from the breadth of expressiveness that could emerge even when the dynamic scope was more limited. One thus became aware of the fact that “energy” was not just a matter of louder or softer but also involved factors such as the density of the notes (through both increased tempo and fuller chords) and approaches to “touch” that influenced attack and decay characteristics.
Between the two sonatas, Fonteneau and Sykes performed three short pieces published as Opus 62 under the title Legenden (legends) by Heinrich von Herzogenberg. These were originally composed for viola and piano but fit just as well to the capabilities of the cello. Herzogenberg championed Brahms’ work, and many of his own compositions drew upon Brahms’ chamber music for models. Opus 62 was composed in 1890; and it is not difficult to recognize the influence of some of Brahms’ short piano pieces, as well as his songs, since the second piece in the set is basically a “song without vocalist.”
Taken as a whole, the program was a well-conceived time capsule of the second half of the nineteenth century, informing the audience of not only how music was made but also the equally significant nature of the listening experience.